“Sock hops, soda pops, going to the malt shop”
“Sunday Monday Happy Days…” It is 40 years since ‘50s-set sitcom Happy Days started on US television screens and rose to iconic status, not least because of the creation of one of TV’s most enduring characters in The Fonz. And though it is 30 years since it came off air, a stage musical based on the show is hoping to capitalise on its retro appeal and all-American charms, with a considerable UK tour kicking off here at the Churchill Bromley.
With a book by original creator Garry Marshall and music and lyrics by Paul Williams, the show’s pedigree is beyond question, not least in the presence of Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself as a creative consultant. And in reintroducing the world of Arnold’s diner, the chirpy high-school kids that go there and the mom and pop tolerance of their hi-jinks, the show certainly succeeds in the fold-out resourcefulness of Tom Roger’s set and period-bright costume design.
So it is a little disappointing that the material is so weak. The story is so wafer-thin as to be virtually non-existent and the narrative focus is spread too sparingly across too many characters for there to be enough substance to them, beyond what may be remembered from the telly. And too much of the score is blandly anonymous, not making enough of the characteristic sound of the period to carve out a recognisable niche for itself.
Fortunately, director/choreographer Andrew Wright has played up the particular strengths of the production to ensure an evening of entertainment. Greg Arrowsmith’s band sounds bright as a button, the big dance set-pieces are a delight – the basketball-spinning Act 2 opener and the dance contest particularly good fun – and Wright highlights the too-rare emotionally true moments that come from the supporting players.
Eddie Myles and Emma Harrold are an adorable Chachi and Joanie, full of love’s young dream, and Cheryl Baker’s Mrs Cunningham near steals the show with a twinkling eye and a surprisingly moving moment in leading the proto-feminist anthem about changing women’s roles. And Scott Waugh proves an able debutant as the personable narrator Richie, even if his character is often sidelined (his girlfriend gets an even rougher deal).
Ben Freeman struggles somewhat as Fonzie though, suffering from having to fit the pre-defined characterisation that has been locked down here. He never manages to attain the level of effortless cool that we’re constantly told the Fonz has and his spoken persona feels awkward throughout. Freeman is much more at home when singing, when a freer, more natural performance is able to shine through.
So something of a mixed bag. For those wanting a good ol’ retro time – complete with dream sequence featuring Elvis and James Dean – then there’s much to enjoy. Or you might find the reference in poor taste, especially in the way in ends, and wonder why the writers have chosen to include them at the expense of developing the actual characters. Either way, there’s no doubting the enthusiasm and goodwill of cast and creatives alike.